We may say the art of embroidery still lives, though its position is that of an art which has beaten a retreat. Its sphere of employment is now a cramped one, and there is little likelihood of its ever regaining sway and filling those serious and responsible functions which were once the very essence of its being. To-day it is treated more as a graceful diversion or accomplishment, and there is little or no diligence in the pursuit of it as a great art, although in the present revival of the artistic handicrafts there is a serious attempt to reanimate the long-neglected art of embroidery. The most promising feature of the movement is the very common-sense view adopted, of turning the work to practical purposes. We have begun to see the uselessness and ugliness of the so-called "fancy work." The discovery of an ugliness - ungainly forms and crude colours - is the first step towards a proper appreciation of beauty. This book may be of some assistance to those who believe whatever is worth doing at all is worth any pains to do well. One's fingers had far better be employed than idle, and if by the result of such occupation something that is already useful is beautified and made interesting, at the same time not deprived of its expression of use and comfort, one is fully repaid for the time so spent.
Embroidery is the art of working with the needle - which replaces the pencil, and variously tinted threads take the place of pigment - some kind of decoration, such as fruit, flowers, figures, symbols, etc., on an already existent material. It has no organic connection with the "stuff" serving as its foundation; it might justly be called a gratuitous addition to it.
Needlework takes precedence of painting, as the earliest method of representing figures and ornament was by the needle depicted upon canvas. Sacerdotal vestments, and other objects of ecclesiastical use, were - from the first days when such articles were employed for religious service - embroidered with symbolical and scriptural subjects. Babylon was renowned for its craft of the needle, and maintained the honour up to the first century of the Christian era.
The Egyptians, with whom the art of embroidery was general, and from whom the Jews are supposed to have derived their skill in needlework, produced figured cloths by the needle and the loom, and practised the art of introducing gold wire into their work. To judge from a passage in Ezek. xxvii. 7, they even embroidered the sails of their galleys which they exported to Tyre: "Fine linen with broidered work from Egypt was that which thou spreadest forth to be thy sail."
The reproduction on page 4, prepared from a fragment of woven tapestry and needlework found in the ancient tombs of Akhmim-Panopolis, in Upper Egypt, is believed to be Christian Coptic, and executed at some period between the fourth and the sixth centuries. Originally it formed part of an octagonal panel for a tunic. It is worked in coloured wools and flax threads. In the centre on a white ground is a purple amphora-shaped vase, with ornament in a white outline, from which springs a conventional plant with balanced foliage, partly encircling a bird. As an early example of
Fragment of Tapestry and Needlework. Christian Coptic, 4th to 6th Centuries.
patterned fabric produced by the needle and the loom it is of very great interest. The embroidery is simply in hem stitch, and is employed to define the weaving in places. We read that in Greece the art was held in the greatest honour, and its invention ascribed to Minerva. Phrygia became celebrated for the beauty of its needlework. The "toga picta," decorated with Phrygian embroidery, was worn by the Roman generals at their triumphs, and by their consuls when they celebrated the games. Embroidery itself is therefore termed in Latin "Phrygian," and the Romans are said to have known it by no other name.
It is said Pope Paschal (fifth century), an ardent lover of needlework, made many splendid donations to the churches. On one of his vestments were pictured the wise virgins, wonderfully worked ; on another, a peacock, in all the gorgeous colours of its plumage, on an amber ground.
In mediaeval times spinning and embroidery, from the palace to the cloister, were the occupations of women of all ranks, and a sharp strife for superiority existed in the production of sacerdotal vestments.
In the eighth century two sisters, abbesses of Valentina in Belgium, became renowned for their excellence in all feminine pursuits, imposing needlework upon the inmates of their convent as a prevention of idleness, the most dangerous of all evils.
Long before the Conquest English ladies were much skilled with the needle. An anecdote related by Mathew of Paris is a proof of the excellence of English work. He tells us, about this time (1246) the Lord Pope (Innocent IV.), having noticed that the ecclesiastical ornaments of some Englishmen, such as mitres and chorister copes, were embroidered in gold thread in a very pleasing manner, asked where these works were made, and received as answer, "In England." Then said the Pope, "England is surely a garden of delights for us ; it is truly a never-failing spring, and there, where many things abound, much may be extorted."
The Countess of Shrewsbury, better known as Bess of Hardwick, was in her day a famous embroideress; also Scotland's queen", whose weary hours were beguiled by work with her needle. Penshurst, Hatfield, Knole, and numerous other English palaces are filled with similar souvenirs of royal and noble ladies.